My Giving Pledge Promise Isn’t Enough: Why It’s Time for the Wealthy to Do More
My six decades have taken me many places. As a philanthropist, I have wrestled with grant making that addresses the symptoms but not the root causes of societal ills. As co-founder and former CEO of a mission-driven community bank, I worked to finance a better world by prioritizing lending for social and environmental impact and changing the banking system for good. As an impact investor, I worked with colleagues to create 10 venture funds to try to change the allocation of startup funding. As a food producer and advocate, I have fought for greater racial and gender equity, environmental restoration, and economic resiliency in our food system. On that same road, my spouse, Tom Steyer, and I took the
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My six decades have taken me many places. As a philanthropist, I have wrestled with grant making that addresses the symptoms but not the root causes of societal ills. As co-founder and former CEO of a mission-driven community bank, I worked to finance a better world by prioritizing lending for social and environmental impact and changing the banking system for good. As an impact investor, I worked with colleagues to create 10 venture funds to try to change the allocation of startup funding. As a food producer and advocate, I have fought for greater racial and gender equity, environmental restoration, and economic resiliency in our food system. On that same road, my spouse, Tom Steyer, and I took the Giving Pledge, and I serve on the boards of several nonprofits.
Through all these experiences I have learned much, but one lesson stands out most during these hardest of times: No amount of grant funding to address the symptoms of inequity will ever “fix” the extractive and exploitative economic system from which these grants come. Our economy was built on oppression, violence, and theft. It has intentionally generated the injustices that undermine our legitimacy and threaten our very existence. We must do more than grant the earnings of capitalism; we must transfer and return that wealth itself.
To create a good life for all, we must move past the debilitating Black-white economic and social dynamic in America by shifting assets on a massive scale. Rebuilding communities after decades of discriminatory lending, denial of capital access, attacks from entrenched racist systems, and devastating environmental pollution takes more than simply investing well. Even the Giving Pledge has its limitations as giving can’t keep up with rapidly escalating fortunes.
It’s time to return power — wealth, income, control, opportunity, and more — back to those from whom it has been taken. At the heart of what is needed is productive equity capital that empowers community control and ownership of assets within those communities.
Today I pledge to return and transfer a minimum of one-third of my assets over my lifetime to communities of color as a first step to help cultivate a “good life” for all.
Toward that end, I commit to transfer five equity grants of $100,000 to five community projects to help access other kinds of capital. I also pledge to each of them $1 million of my donor-advised assets to use as collateral to obtain low-cost nonprofit bond financing. This creative financing tool can solve a capital gap for community-driven investments and provide permanent capital at low cost for nonprofits. This commitment will be in addition to grant making we have traditionally done.
Where My Resources Are Going
The five catalytic projects and communities are: Urban Tilth and Cooperation Richmond (Richmond, Calif.,), the BIG We Foundation and Historic Clayborn Temple (Memphis), Inside Circle and their Aspire Transformational Communities (San Francisco), historic Allensworth’s economic renaissance (Allensworth, Calif,) and the Village at Friendship House (San Francisco).
After years of disinvestment, these communities are at the beginning stages of building environments that foster social, climate, and economic justice.
Allensworth was the first town in California that was founded, financed, built, and governed by African Americans. Its founder, Lt. Col. Allen Allensworth, was a former slave. Extreme poverty and high levels of arsenic in the drinking water forced many families to leave. Today Allensworth residents are restoring the town by working with the University of California at Berkeley to produce a water-treatment system that inexpensively removes arsenic from groundwater, building affordable housing for veterans, and growing healthy food through sustainable agriculture. Allensworth is a symbol for what we can become: It could become, as it was meant to be, the Tuskegee of the West.
Based on traditional Indigenous values and principles, Friendship House is leading a coalition of Native organizations to build the Village in San Francisco. The majority of Native people live in cities, yet they remain invisible and share similar inequities as other communities of color. The Village will restore and build bridges between communities and provide a home and essential services by and for urban Native Americans.
These are just two examples. What will emerge from these catalytic communities and others, we hope, are communal models of ownership, where all thrive because everyone owns a little bit of everything and no one owns too much of anything.
Much of the work in these communities is inspired by the ReGenesis Foundation in Spartanburg, S.C., and the work of Push Buffalo in New York, which have both shown the world what holistic large-scale equitable development looks like. We are also offering grant funding to both of these innovative organizations to share their lessons, and their playbooks, with the many communities working to follow their lead.
A Challenge to Others
To expand our work quickly, I’m also challenging myself to inspire four other donors to match me, both in offering grants that strengthen the ability of nonprofits to successfully absorb large infusions of financial support and in pledging donor-advised assets toward collateralizing low-cost nonprofit bond financing for the communities I am working with. That would cultivate $500,000 in grants and $5 million in assets for each project to use when the communities are ready.
I encourage everyone to rethink the way charitable vehicles and assets can be used so that we can all continue to learn and deploy our wealth beneficially. Through creative philanthropic and financial strategies, I believe wealthy people and community institutions can bring into reality the long-held and fervent visions of America’s Black, brown, and Indigenous communities — and secure community ownership of what gets built.
Together, our transferred wealth can give balance-sheet strength to community efforts that benefit us all. But it will only happen if enough big donors rethink their approach to giving.
May all people have the resources they need to live a good life.